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VOL. 8 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 11, 2015

Wild Side

Memphis Zoo expands with focus on research, conservation

By Don Wade

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No chance of being attacked by a hippo, which despite its size can outrun a man and is responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other large animal.

No chance of being caught between the powerful jaws of a Nile crocodile and dragged underwater, drowned and devoured like a wildebeest in a National Geographic video.

And no chance of being shot by poachers, some of whom have ties to international terrorist organizations.

All in all, there’s a great case to be made for viewing the hippopotamus or the Nile croc in Midtown Memphis. And soon it will be possible. Next spring the $21.2 million Zambezi River Hippo Camp exhibit is expected to open at the Memphis Zoo.

And if it achieves its goals for visitors, most of whom will never step foot on the continent of Africa, it will momentarily transport them in time and place.

“We want to make them feel like they’re in our little part of Africa,” said Mark Thompson, the zoo’s director of animal programs. “We’re trying to create the illusion you’re walking along the side of the Zambezi River.”

As visitors stroll through the exhibit they also will see flamingos, Mandrel baboons – “very active, always jumping and playing,” Thompson said – and okapis, which sort of look like a cross between a horse and a giraffe. There also will be an aviary and an underwater hippo viewing area.

“People think of hippos as clumsy and slow, but it’s really not true. They’re turning and doing pirouettes,” Thompson said as he gave a tour of the exhibit, the building of which is being overseen by general contractor Zellner Construction and the architectural firm of Torre Design Consortium, which did the China, Northwest Passage and Teton Trek exhibits.

The China exhibit, which opened 12 years ago and features giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le, signaled a strong move by the Zoo to make research and conservation a priority. Visiting the zoo is no longer just about seeing animals in captivity or providing an educational experience for school kids on a field trip.

One of the two original Memphis Zoo hippos, Adonis, who came here in 1916, has a descendant, Splish, who will be one of the three hippos in the new Zambezi River Camp.

“Adonis is still teaching today; we have his skull we use in class,” said Carla Cook, director of education.

But the education only starts there.

“Our mission is conservation and research of threatened animals in wild places,” said Andy Kouba, director of conservation and research at the zoo. “We’re very proud of the fact that we’re trying to walk the walk and showcasing those programs and projects to the Memphis community.

“It actually started with the pandas,” Kouba continued. “One of the things we had to do was showcase to the Fish & Wildlife Service we weren’t bringing pandas in for monetary purposes; it had to be for research and conservation.”

When the Northwest Passage opened, the zoo began engaging in polar bear research. It followed suit with Teton Trek, setting up programs with grizzly bears and looking at Yellowstone Park’s greater ecosystem.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We’ll get requests from people all over the world to support research programs,” Kouba said. “They’re looking for money. But we’re really focused on the collection that we have and the habitats that we’re showcasing here.”

Zoo feeds Memphis economy and psyche
The Memphis Zoo is worth $83.8 million in total impact to the Memphis economy and provides 879 jobs.

That’s what a recent economic impact study from the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research and the Center for Manpower Studies at the University of Memphis found.

“The animals we have in the zoo serve a phenomenal role to save their counterparts in the wild.”

Andy Kouba
Director of Conservation and Research

More than 300,000 tourists from outside the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area visit the zoo each year; these visits alone provide a $62.1 million impact to the local economy.

“The zoo has been attracting visitors for decades,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Zoo visitors are repeat visitors … Our city benefits in so many ways as a result of the work taking place to improve and maintain a state-of-the-art amenity like the Memphis Zoo.”

Not to mention the zoo puts the city on a positive top 10 list, instead of another downer list pegging Memphis as high-crime or, well, fatter than a camp of hippos.

Courtney Janney, curator of large mammals, has been at the zoo less than two years. She heard about the negative top 10 lists when she interviewed here, and she doesn’t look at the positive top 10 lists that mention the Memphis Zoo as all being the same. The ones based on reviews by visitors, she said, are more valuable.

“It means we’re giving people what they’re looking for when they come through the gate,” she said. “But what I love is wearing my Memphis Zoo uniform outside the zoo.

“I mean, you’re like a super hero. People are unbelievably proud of the zoo we have here in Memphis.”

Animals in danger
While it’s much less expensive to drive to the Memphis Zoo from Arlington or Olive Branch than to fly to Africa, $21.2 million sounds like a big price tag for the Zambezi River Hippo Camp.

But there is a lot more to it than just getting the animal residents here – usually from another zoo – and then staffing the exhibit with humans.

“The whole thing is custom,” Thompson said. “We try to make it as organic as possible. And the water infiltration or life-support system is very expensive. It takes a lot to provide crystal clear water.”

The zoo is home to more than 1,500 different species, counting all manner of bird and fish – and there also will be fish in the Zambezi exhibit. The hippo, like the elephant and so many other animals of Africa, is now threatened by events beyond its control.

“Due do all the terrible wars and terrorist activities, they’ve been wiped out for meat,” Kouba said. “It’s very likely we’ll start looking at hippo projects we can support in the wild (as they do with giant pandas, which are endangered).

“Elephants are in a lot of trouble,” Kouba added.

He referenced an Association of Zoos and Aquariums anti-poaching campaign dubbed 96 Elephants, a nod to the estimated 96 elephants killed each day throughout Africa for their ivory.

Wildlife trafficking, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is now a $19 billion annual industry, and the fourth-largest illegal global activity after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking and ahead of oil, art, gold, human organ, small weapons and diamond trafficking.

The Memphis Zoo is involved in helping to set up rangers in Africa who are charged with protecting the endangered giant panda. It’s not always a safe job. Rangers in Africa have been killed trying to keep harm from threatened animals. The zoo also is involved in a reforestation project to benefit giant pandas and other wildlife.

Elephants, Kouba says, are increasingly more vulnerable because they are not reproducing in captivity.

“There’s a projection elephants could disappear in captivity in the next 20 to 25 years if the breeding situation doesn’t change,” Kouba said. “Our elephants, you could call them education ambassadors.”

To that end, he says more signage is planned as well as interactive features so zoo visitors can learn not just about the animal in front of them, but the challenges faced in the wild and how the Memphis Zoo and other zoos are involved in partnerships across the globe in the name of protecting threatened species.

“The animals we have in the zoo serve a phenomenal role to save their counterparts in the wild,” Kouba said.

In captivity, it is senior veterinarian Felicia Knightly who might be given the task of saving an animal.

“Most visitors may not even realize we have a hospital on the grounds,” she said, adding, “Exotic animals are extremely stoic. Your domestic dog has a belly ache, you’re probably gonna know it a lot sooner than when an exotic species has a belly ache. Lions, gazelles, primates, aren’t like that. Because if you show weakness in the wild, you’re lunch.”

Recently, a lioness named Jamela had more than a belly ache. She couldn’t keep food down and Knightly’s initial examination, which included sedating the lion and getting X-rays, plus doing an endoscopy and colonoscopy, only showed Jamela had a lot of air in her stomach. So Knightly re-hydrated her, started antibiotics, and waited.

Three days later, the symptoms returned. Reluctantly, Knightly did an exploratory surgery – “opened this lion from stem to stern to make sure nothing’s in there.”

Only, there was something in there. For many years now, zoo patrons have been trained not to feed the animals. And Knightly says visitors are usually good about letting staff know when they accidentally drop their sunglasses or a cell phone into an exhibit.

But in this case, Knightly found a still unidentified hard, plastic object six to eight inches in diameter in the lion’s stomach. Knightly removed it and today Jamela is healthy.

Meantime, the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come through the Memphis Zoo’s gates each year are not just fuel for the greater Memphis economy and the zoo’s reputation, they are counted-upon as two-legged supporters.

They buy memberships. They sponsor exhibits. They further the cause.

“Even kids, you’ll see them putting their donations in the wishing wells or throwing it in the fountains,” Kouba said. “All those donations are going toward supporting conservation in the wild.”

And bringing a small section of the Zambezi Riverbank to Memphis.

The Memphis News publisher Eric Barnes is on the board of the Overton Park Conservancy. He did not participate in the writing or editing of this story.

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